Racial Conflict And Self-identity In Wide Sargasso Sea

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 by Jean Rhys, is the story of the female protagonist Antoinette Cosway, who became ‘the mad-woman in the attic’, in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. Rhys gives voice and worth to this silenced character, while exposing issues of racial conflict and self-identity within the post-colonial novel.

The novel opens with Antoinette’s narrative, who states, ‘’They say when troubles comes close ranks, so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks’’, implying the imperialist white incomers rejected the white Creoles, highlighting them as social outcasts from the offset. Rhys’ use of the word ‘’ranks’’, ultimately mirrors the racial hierarchy present within the novel and the precarious position of the Creoles. The term ‘’close ranks’’ may allude to how the white colonialist society is ‘closed off’ to the Creoles, as there is no distinct place for them following the Emancipation Act of 1833. It could be suggested that this further reflects the hostile attitudes of other races towards the Creoles; both the superior white imperialists and the black ex-slave community outwardly reject and exclude them from society. This is emphasised by the phrase ‘’we were not in their ranks’’, supposedly confirming their displacement within the racialised social structure. In opening the novel with this, Rhys seems to highlight the Creoles as a target of alienation, due to their colonial background thus provides an image of racial tension.

As well as being marginalised by the white imperialists, the white creoles are also rejected by the blacks. Rhys appears to reflect, through her use of colonised language, how their identity and place within the Jamaican society has come under pressure. Rhys assigns racialised ‘image identities’ to the Creoles in which the black characters use derogatory insults such as ‘’white cockroach’’. This metaphor, in the form of insect imagery, pictures the Creoles as pests, disease-ridden and dirty. The word ‘cockroach’ often evokes ideas of infestation, mirroring the Europeans invasion, or colonisation, of Caribbean land and exploitation of its people, these being the black population. The imagery is further developed when Christophine states ‘’you mash centipede… leave one little piece and it will grow again’’. This metaphor arguably reflects the violent, aggressive attitudes of the black people, mirroring the liminal status of the Creoles. Rhys’ use of dehumanising language surrounding the Creoles may further develop the idea of racial hatred.

In addition, this identification of this group as ravenous pests sets them apart, both alienating and displacing them in Jamaican society. Within his latest works, ‘Culture and Imperialism’, Edward Said touches upon the idea of the ‘Colonial other’. This concept of othering is relevant when discussing Antoinette’s position within society, as her character is shown to be ‘othered’ by the Jamaican citizens. They seem to exclude Antoinette through their repetitive use of racialised insults. The centipede analogy may also voice the black people’s fear that white supremacy will emerge and dominate again. It somewhat emphasises that efforts to reduce their power such as the introduction of the Emancipation Act, will not eliminate all threat to the future of the black people.

In part one, Rhys presents the burning down of the Coulibri estate by the rebellious black community. This fire could symbolise the anger of the black ex slaves and their discontent in relation to their past endurance of suffering, caused by the colonisation of their country. Rhys uses pathetic fallacy in the description of the tragic event, describing how, ‘’the house was burning, the yellow red sky like sunset’’. This fire could be symbolic of the anger geared towards the consequences induced by the Emancipation Act, suggested through the colour red, connoting aggression and fury. Rhys reveals their discontent towards the unequal position still held within society. Entrapment through slavery left black people with few freedoms and individuality, unable to express themselves. The passing of the Emancipation Act represented a form of hope, a release from confinement and a chance to repair their fractured identity. It provided them with a chance to re-invent and be rid of previous negative ideology concerning their identity. However, this was undermined by the dominant attitudes of white imperialists towards the black ex slaves, Mr Mason stating ‘’they’re too damn lazy to be dangerous’’. This reveals the negative stereotypes held by the white imperialists regarding the black people, their ‘laziness’ becoming their master status, placing them in a position of powerlessness similar to that of their position pre-Emancipation Act. This reveals the lack of change in white attitudes due to their inability to comprehend the cultural differences, which they have been raised to view Creoles as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’. It could also be noted that fire leaves behind ashes and the remanence of flames, symbolic of the Emancipation act, as although it supposedly ended the slaving trade and granted freedom, a legislative act cannot erase the heinous immortality and racism that presided over society for centuries to follow.

In addition, part one also sees Rhys combine fire and animal imagery, detailing how Antoinette’s parrot, Coco, descends into flames in the Coulibri fire, trapped by his ‘’clipped wings’’ . Mr Mason reveals the reason for clipping his wings is because of his ‘’inability to talk very well’’. This can be viewed as a metaphor for the powerlessness of the colonised Creole women of the novel, confined in some way by the imperialistic colonisers. For example, Rhys has Coco the bird reflect the protagonist Antoinette; both suffer the removal of their freedoms in a similar manner. Antoinette’s life, in a sense, ends when she is drawn from her natural environment of Jamaica, by marrying Rochester, which ultimately enrols her into a life of entrapment under his imperialistic dominance. This provides a parallel to Coco, a bird that loses all privileges when removed from its natural environment and is imprisoned behind bars, unable to fly. Similarly, Rhys presents the character of Antoinette trapped in her relationship with Rochester. As the novel develops, this idea of a ‘pet and owner relationship’, central to Coco’s captivity, is evident in Antoinette’s marriage to English coloniser Rochester, indicating the derogatory state of Creole women. Although the fire evidently causes destruction, Rhys also suggests it to be a form of escape for Coco the parrot from the oppressive coloniser, Mr Mason.

Ultimately, Rhys presents the character of Antoinette as a symbol of the confused status of the Creoles. Ciolkowski, a post-colonial theorist, notes how, ‘’Antoinette exists in a liminal space between the coloniser and the colonised that leads to ambiguity in her sense of self’’. In her on-going attempt to discover her true identity as a Creole woman, Antoinette is subjected to various forms of oppression placed upon her by the Jamaican society as well as her husband. She is caught between her own insecure sense of belonging, and Rochester’s imperious demands. Both equally employ pressures on her to conform to one single culture, leaving her trapped between the colonised Jamaicans and English colonisers. Ciolkowski proceeds to expand upon this idea of ambiguity, stating as a result, her character suffers an ‘identity crisis’. In Susan Ferguson’s book ‘Race, Gender and Social class: Diversities of Inequality and Identity’, she explains how identity is both inherited and acquired. It is partly a product of society, and shaped by various aspects such as race, class and gender. He claims race is integral in the formation of one’s identity because a person’s race could affect how they are treated by others, sometimes in a discriminative manner. This racialized slander is evident in the black characters attitudes towards the Creoles, identified in the previous insults of ‘’white cockroach’’ and ‘’mash centipede’’. Race also affects how she is treated by her British husband, who holds the ideology that he is superior to his wife, due to her Creole heritage, her culture significantly differing from his strict English upbringing. This rejection from both leaves Antoinette in a conflictive state of confusion regarding her sense of self and belonging.

Post-colonialist Bhabha reveals the term ‘hybridity’ in relation to the idea of identification in his work ‘The Location of Culture’. Antoinette is, as identified by Ciolkowski, presented by Rhys in an ‘in-between’ state as a result of her conflicting identities. Bhabha describes hybridity as an ‘’ambivalent state of mind’’ where there are mixed feelings as a result of instability in terms of home and belonging. Using Bhabha’s theory of hybridity, it is evident that hybridity is the product of this ‘in-between’ state, suffered by Antoinette. He reveals that social inclusion and exclusion, difference and identity are all a result of a ‘’system of power’’ where the ones with a set identity can repress the others, labelled ‘hybrids’. He claims hybridity is not created by the hybrid itself, but by the ‘’colonial power’’. A form of hybridity can be found within Rhys novel, in the dominant colonial power Rochester re-naming Antoinette in order to suppress her Creole identity. This exposes his level of control over his wife, a name being a crucial part of one’s identity. Antoinette reveals ‘’ When he passes my door he says ‘’Goodnight Bertha.’’ He never calls me Antoinette now.’’ Rochester possibly separates Antoinette’s background, from his ideal version of her due to his view of her background as inferior to his own, her culture improper and the people savage.

Although, the end of the novel reveals Antoinette’s re-gaining of identity, her character liberated through the concluding fire imagery. This fire directly mirrors that of Coulibri which, although caused destruction, acted as a form of escape for Coco the parrot from the oppressive coloniser, Mr Mason. At the end of Part three, Antoinette is pictured by Rhys in a dream where she sets fire to the Thornfield house of England. The dream behaves as a realisation for Antoinette; the act of arson arguably implies her rejection of her part English identity, and her abandonment of the oppression she faced from cruel imperialistic Rochester. Before the house catches fire, Antoinette is pictured walking around the house. She enters a large room with a red carpet, however ‘’everything else was white’’. The colour white connotes goodness and perfection, juxtaposed by Rhys with Antoinette’s contrasting emotion towards the room, revealing how it ‘’seemed sad and cold and empty to me, like a church without an alter’’. Rhys use of pleonasm in repeating ‘and’ presents an overload of melancholic emotion, accentuating the frustration suffered by Antoinette in reference to her connection to her English identity. Following this, Antoinette knocks the candles down resulting in them catching the curtains, setting light to the house and stating ‘’I laughed when I saw the lovely colour spreading so fast’’. Antoinette throughout the novel has been the centre of mockery by both Jamaicans and imperialist English due to her Creole background, thus Rhys gives her the ‘last laugh’, representing her re-claim over her own voice, previously retained by Rochester. Antoinette finds amusement in the destruction of Thornfield, possibly signifying her satisfaction of her ultimate triumph over Rochester and his failure in his attempt to destroy her individuality. Ultimately, throughout the dream, Antoinette reveals a secure sense of self in her Caribbean identity, displayed through Rhys’ focus on the positive aspects that comprise her Jamaican self, Christophine and Tia. Christophine is presented as an invincible figure of stability to Antoinette, as Rhys seems to allude her to ‘’a wall of fire protecting me’’. This could suggest Christophine is shielding her from any further hardship by coloniser Rochester, the fire possibly symbolic of Christophine untouchable power. Antoinette finds strength in her Jamaican roots, which inevitably led her to escape from Thornfield, evident in the concluding line ‘’there must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burnt up again to light me along the dark passage’’. Applying Rhys’ previous allusion of Christophine as a source of light and strength to Antoinette, it could be implied that at Antoinette darkest point of oppression in Thornfield, Antoinette found hope within her Jamaican identity, allowing Christopine to finally guided her out imperialist restraint and towards that of freedom. This imagery thus reveals her rejection of Rochester and her English identity, her strength lying in her Jamaican roots all along.


Read more